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Do Female Teachers Spread Math Anxiety to Girls?

Posted January. 28, 2010 08:53,   


Korean boys tend to perform better in math than girls, but studies say this could be due to socio-cultural factors and gender inequality.

In Korean college entrance exams given between 2005 and last year, male students comprised 62 percent of those receiving top grades in math, while female students accounted for 38 percent.

In the past, the majority of experts said gender differences in math performance result from biological factors. When Dr. Jeong Gyeong-ah of the Korea Women’s Development Institute surveyed 403 middle and high school math teachers in 2005, 332 of the teachers said gender differences play a role in math performance and cannot be narrowed by teachers.

This notion has been disputed, however, by a research team led by Professor in Psychology Susan Levine at the University of Chicago, which published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Levine said girls are weak at math because of socio-cultural factors. “Girls are weaker than boys when it comes to math since female teachers say boys are better than girls at math. Such a phenomenon gets worse since many elementary school students are taught by female teachers,” her study said.

Taking part in the study was 17 first- and second-grade female teachers and 65 girls and 52 boys in their classes. The research team analyzed how the math scores of the students improved in the beginning and end of the school year. Math confidence was evaluated in the study’s analysis of the teachers.

Girls with anxious teachers scored lower on math achievement tests at the end of the year, but the boys were unaffected. In addition, girls are more likely to believe that boys are “hard-wired” for math and that girls are better at reading.

“Female teachers should have not only good teaching skills, but also a positive attitude toward math to effectively teach students the subject,” the team said.

Bae Jong-su, a professor of math education at the Seoul National University of Education, said, “Koreans also need to reconsider the issue since women account for 74.6 percent of elementary school teachers in Korea. Many female sophomores and juniors in high school stop trying to get higher math scores. If math-anxious girls become math teachers, this vicious circle will keep repeating.”

“Koreans consider math as a subject requiring memorization. Accordingly, math achievement depends on endurance, not logical thinking ability. This explains why boys are better than girls at math.”

Bae said this phenomenon will change if a new math textbook for elementary schools is adopted as scheduled. The new textbook emphasizes the use of concepts to solve problems, not measures.

For example, instead of asking how to solve “two plus three times four” as previous textbooks did, the new textbook lets students know “three plus two times four is 11” and then asks for the reason.

“In the past, teachers told students to do addition first. But from now on, teachers will provide logical explanations,” Bae said.

In Pennsylvania, Villanova University researchers said in a study that gender differences in math performance narrow in nations where both sexes are treated equally.

The survey polled around 490,000 youths in 69 nations and its results were published in the American Psychological Society`s Psychological Bulletin this month. In the study, Korea was found to have significant gender differences in math.

Professor Lee Dae-sik at the Gyeongin National University of Education, however, said, “If you survey elementary school students, girls like math more than boys. Times have changed. Girls can best boys in just about any subject. Math will be no exception.”